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The Impact of the Pandemic on Survey Research

A deeper look at how the pandemic affected polling

It’s been over one year since we published a letter to our clients about the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to Meeting Street Insights. We wanted to take this opportunity to take a deeper look at how the pandemic affected polling in both the long- and short-term, and how we anticipate those changes will affect the industry going forward.

Pandemic Response Rates Rose Then Stabilized

Starting around mid-March — during the initial lockdowns, rising cases, and emergency declaration by the federal government — response rates to phone and internet surveys increased significantly. With many businesses closed, more people were available and willing to spend a few minutes answering questions about a wide variety of topics.

While we hoped that this trend would last, survey response rates decreased to pre-pandemic levels in just a few months. By the beginning of summer 2020, we saw response percentages nearly identical to those in 2019.

Survey Methodologies Shifted Toward Digital

To keep people safe and attempt to contain the spread of the pandemic, the types of polls that we were able to field changed. In-person focus groups, program testing, and dial groups were all suspended. These changes have lasted through the entire pandemic and will likely continue for at least another few months.

Focus Groups, Program Testing, and Dial Groups

Perhaps the most unsurprising change is that all in-person focus groups, in-person program testing, and in-person dial groups were immediately canceled. This was true across the research industry. None of the public opinion polling firms or vendors we know have run in-person research since early 2020. We hope that with more people being able to be vaccinated, we will be able to resume in-person research in the next few months.

The good news is that focus groups, advertising or program testing, and dial groups all can be taken online in nearly the same format as their offline versions. For example, online focus groups use an online meeting technology and a trained moderator to lead a discussion on a specific topic. While this is a newer survey research methodology, it is becoming more common as more people become more familiar with online meetings. We’ve found that most participants can handle the rules of an online focus group pretty well, and organizations are getting valuable insights. 

Online Bulletin Board Groups

While not as directly analogous to a type of in-person research as focus groups, online bulletin board groups are becoming increasingly common. An online bulletin board group allows participants to write responses to questions on a dedicated, private message board. Participants can respond to the initial question and to one another in threaded discussions.

One benefit to online bulletin board groups is that participants have more time to think through their answers than in most other types of survey research. Bulletin boards last about three days, which means a moderator can dive deeper than in a two-hour in-person focus group. Participants are often more deliberate, which can lead to clearer, more well-thought-out answers. In addition, this type of research allows organizations to gather participant feedback from a much larger geographic area because travel time isn’t an issue.

A  perceived drawback to online bulletin board groups that has always existed is that some participants won’t be able to navigate the technology. While that concern remains a consideration, it’s become less so as the general population becomes more familiar with online communication. In addition, online bulletin board technology is becoming increasingly user-friendly. As a result, we haven’t encountered any participants who weren’t able to navigate the technology. 

The biggest drawback to online bulletin board groups (when compared to in-person research) is the fact that moderators can’t see immediate reactions, like facial expressions. Online focus groups can alleviate some of this loss of nuance, but in-person focus groups will always allow moderators to capture more participant reactions to questions and to other responses.

Looking Forward Past the Pandemic

The pandemic’s impact on survey research was significant, and it’s forced us to change some of the ways that we deploy surveys. It’s also provided our industry with new opportunities to innovate. Ultimately, these new ways of thinking and operating could improve how campaigns, businesses, nonprofits, and other groups can get the data they need to make confident decisions. As in-person research methods resume, we expect that online methods will take the place of some in-person methods. However, given many innovations we’ve seen in online public opinion research, we expect that many organizations will continue to use them even as in-person methods resume. 

If you need help navigating new changes in survey methodology, we can help. Get in touch or subscribe to our newsletter.

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